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HISTORY – THE BOGSIDE

The area that is now known as the Bogside was originally underwater, as the Foyle flowed around the hill of Doire, of the oak grove. Over time this river became a stream, and a large bog surrounded the base of the hill on the western side. The stream was known as Mary Blue’s Burn.


The island of Derry

It flowed along the line of Rossville Street to the west of the Lecky Road and out into the Foyle near the bottom of Bishop Street. The burn was crossed by three causeways – probably built by monks belonging to Colm Cille’s or a later monastery – and these followed the lines of William Street, the Bog Road, and Stanley’s Walk.

The Bog was divided into two townlands – one named Ballymagowan/Baile na gCananach (the townland of the Canons), possibly named after the Augustinian Canons who founded a monastery (near St. Augustine’s church today), in 1162. This townland remained the property of the monastery up until the time of the confiscations of the 1500s and the monks probably cultivated the land in the area as far as was possible.

The Bishop of Derry held ownership of the other townland of Edenballymore/Eudhan Baile Mor (the face, or hillbrow of the large townland), which also lay in the Bog, and it was probably he who recommended the sinking of the three wells (of which there is now only one, ceremonial, remaining), in St. Columb’s Wells, and perhaps the placing of Colm Cille’s holy stone on a track leading into the monastery for veneration.

Before, there may have been at least one well in pre-Christian times to serve the fortress of Calgach on the hill summit, though an expanding monastic centre would have needed additional supplies and water was always regarded as sacred in Celtic belief systems. In addition to some cultivation for the abbey’s needs in these townlands, it is likely that there was pasture ground set aside for cattle belonging to the monks.

The Bog was obviously therefore, an area of functional use providing food and fresh water prior to the Viking, Anglo-Norman or Tudor invasions: a sacred place in some respects, where water was drawn and Colm Cille’s stone touched or rubbed both by locals and visitors for protection and good luck.

The earliest recorded inhabitants of the ‘Bogg Side’, named as an area by the English invasion force of 1600 (making this the 400th birthday of the name), were among those 61 ‘British’ families listed as living outside the walls in the survey of 1622. This, of course, would have completely ignored any native Irish inhabitants living in the area.

This small overflow community of Protestants probably grew up in the wake of Cathair O Dochartaigh’s rebellion of 1608, when Derry, for the first and only time, was successfully stormed by the native Irish and destroyed. O Dochartaigh’s men approached the city through the Bog as the O Domhnaill clan had attempted with 2,000 troops at midnight on 16 September 1600 (the English killed 14 or 15 of this force, and their bodies were found in the Bog the following morning).

It is likely that even in monastic times the Bog was an area of potential threat in as much as any substantial attack was expected to come through that area. It is clear though, that O Dochartaigh’s sacking of Derry in 1608 increased this sense of threat and the walls were thrown up soon after to keep the Irish out as much as to protect the Planters and their families within.

The small, predominantly Protestant community that developed just outside the walls after 1608 was dismantled in 1641 when the native Irish rose throughout Ulster. These first Bogsiders would have taken refuge within the walled city only returning to re-build outside Butcher’s gate in the safer climate following the Royalist siege of 1649, which was eventually relieved by a mainly native Irish force led by Eoghan Rua O Neill. From this period until the siege of 1688-9, the Bogside would have been re-inhabited possibly by many of those who had lived there before 1641.

By 1660 we get a hint of a Bogside community having re-established itself from the Muster Roll for that year which gives the figures of 110 English and Scottish, and 78 Irish people living outside the walls, that is, outside Shipquay gate, Butcher’s gate and Ferryquay gate. The Muster Rolls enumerated those men of fighting age who could be called up to defend the city, and as a result the majority of them were probably Protestants. The Poll Tax returns for the same year give 65 as the number of people dwelling outside Butcher’s gate.

A more definite picture of the Bogside comes in 1663 when the Hearth Money Rolls (drawn up to exact rent from every household with a hearth), mentioned that the ‘Bogside’ contained 46 houses and 46 hearths. These houses probably extended from Butcher’s gate along Waterloo Street (at that time known as ‘the Cow Bog’), and also along Fahan Street (originally called ‘Bogside Street’).

Given the above facts, there was obviously a well-established if precarious pre-siege community living in the Bogside, most of whom would have retired to the safety of the town during the 1688-9 siege itself. After the siege, the Bogside was slowly re-built and re-inhabited though it probably had a more strongly Catholic profile than before. We know that in the early 1700s when the Penal laws were more stringently enforced, Bogside Catholics used to gather secretly to hear Mass under the hawthorn trees – some of which remain – at the back of the Long Tower chapel (which at that time had not yet been built and an earlier church occupied the site).

As the 1700s progressed and the Bogside slowly began to witness a steady influx of impoverished Donegal families, the area became noted for a few trades, alongside the many labourers, sailors and dock workers. Aside from home-based linen manufacture, there were a number of Bogside ropemakers and at least three streets (Stanley’s Rope Walk, Rope Walk as Westland Street was called, and Cable Street), originally had this in their name to signify their proximity to rope manufacturers.

An additional livelihood was gained from poteen-making and it is recorded that the smoke from the illegal stills could be seen from Derry’s walls. Most of the poteen-makers were however organised into secret societies and were well-armed, and as a result the authorities were afraid to enter areas of the Bogside to seize the stills without a large military force in attendance. Because of its big Inishowen population, the Bogside served as the main stopping off point, market, and hiding place for many of the major Inishowen poteen manufacturers particularly during the 1780s. Some of these men were caught by the armed excise officers when going between the Bog and the city to sell their drink, such as in 1786 when they shot dead one such man at Butcher’s gate and were tried for his murder. 

As the 1700s progressed and the Bogside slowly began to witness a steady influx of impoverished Donegal families, the area became noted for a few trades, alongside the many labourers, sailors and dock workers. Aside from home-based linen manufacture, there were a number of Bogside ropemakers and at least three streets (Stanley’s Rope Walk, Rope Walk as Westland Street was called, and Cable Street), originally had this in their name to signify their proximity to rope manufacturers.

An additional livelihood was gained from poteen-making and it is recorded that the smoke from the illegal stills could be seen from Derry’s walls. Most of the poteen-makers were however organised into secret societies and were well-armed, and as a result the authorities were afraid to enter areas of the Bogside to seize the stills without a large military force in attendance. Because of its big Inishowen population, the Bogside served as the main stopping off point, market, and hiding place for many of the major Inishowen poteen manufacturers particularly during the 1780s. Some of these men were caught by the armed excise officers when going between the Bog and the city to sell their drink, such as in 1786 when they shot dead one such man at Butcher’s gate and were tried for his murder.

The establishment of the Long Tower chapel in 1784 reflected an expanding Catholic community in Derry which took on new dimensions as the 1800s began.

Increasing poverty and instability in much of the rural hinterland of Donegal, Derry, Tyrone and Fermanagh as well as the commercial development of the city brought in considerably larger numbers of migrants than hithereto. Many of these people probably never intended to stay in Derry but just earn their passage to America, Scotland or England. However, the irregular nature of unskilled employment and low wages generally prevented many potential emigrants from leaving and they began to cram into the Bogside in ever greater numbers.

Some indication of the overcrowding in the area is given in the fact that in 1832 Abbey Street had 44 dwellings containing 63 families with an average family size of about 7 people. Fahan Street was worse again with 164 dwellings inhabited by 244 families, again with around about 7 members each. Housing stock in the area was of extremely poor quality and iron age-type mud cabins made up a significant proportion of this stock, some of which continued to be inhabited as late as the beginning of the twentieth century.

The dwellings were noted to be comfortable enough in the summer but suffered from atrocious dampness during the winter months. An almost total lack of outside toilets (or privy houses, as they were termed) also continued to be the norm in the Bogside for most of the 1800s and open sewers ran along the streets dangerously close to the entrances of the houses. Mary Blue’s Burn itself served as a cess-pit in this manner and was soon choked with human effulent, household rubbish and dead animals.

A piped water supply was constructed for the city and the Fountain area as early as 1808/09 but the Bogside and most of the area without the walls was not included in this scheme and locals drew their water from the wells, again for most of the 1800s.

With such conditions prevailing it’s unsurprising that when the cholera epidemic of 1832 took hold it affected the Bogside more than any other area, for example, there was not a single case reported in the Waterside. By the end of that year 188 people, mostly Bogsiders, had died of the disease.

Throughout much of the nineteenth century the Bogside retained something of a rural feel with the type of housing and lifestyle of the inhabitants. Many of the houses were increasingly inhabited by unskilled labourers from the mountain districts of Donegal who subsidised their income by keeping pigs (many of which were fed with waste from Abbey Street distillery) and small potato patches. Even the Catholic skilled tradesmen who earned quite superior wages could live nowhere other than the Bogside, and often they too rented out potato patches to supplement their income.

The advent of an elected corporation in Derry in 1841 was a major local political development for the city but despite the presence of three Catholics on the new body, conditions did not markedly improve in the Bogside.

Although in a clear majority in the city there were only 200 Catholic voters in the 1860 city by-election and of these, few would have been residents of the Bogside. The area nevertheless had a strong interest in politics and was noted by local observers to have been an ardently nationalist district as early as 1830 when Bogsiders paraded the streets and the city in support of Daniel O’Connell and the campaign for the repeal of the union.

Apart from this open political culture there also existed an underground political culture in the form of the Ribbonmen. This was the name applied to the members of Catholic and anti-Orange secret societies who had originally worn small red or green ribbons to identify them. Their main purpose was to provide protection and support for working class Catholics, for nationalist movements and to pro-actively oppose and attack Orange parades.

It had been a popular movement in rural Donegal where it provided a secret network for the poteen makers, and was transplanted into the Bogside from the early 1800s. It came to public notoriety in Derry in 1813 after armed Ribbonmen clashed with the Catholic Bishop of Derry, whom they termed ‘Orange Charlie’ (Charles O’Donnell, 1747-1823), and with Apprentice Boys in 1822. It declined in importance after Catholic emancipation but was probably an organising force against loyalist parades in the city for many years thereafter.

Riots in 1868, 1869, 1870, 1874, 1877, 1883, 1886 and 1905 all involved the Bogside to some degree and matched a pattern set back in 1841 when Bogsiders marched into the city only to be beaten back down Fahan Street by Apprentice Boys aided by police and the military. It is interesting to note however, that the substantial Protestant minority in the Bogside rarely suffered attacks during these riots.

As regards nationalist politics, Irish republicanism was never a strong force in Derry though the Irish Republican Brotherhood maintained a small organisation in the Bogside from the 1860s to the 1890s. On the other hand, from the early 1870s there was a popular Home Rule movement which had substantial support in the Bogside and held annual demonstrations on 17 March and 15 August, as well as celebrating individual election successes like that of Thomas Sexton in West Belfast in 1886. Interestingly, the Bogside custom of lighting chimney fires to cast a pall of soot and ash over Apprentice Boys at Walker’s Pillar on Lundy’s Day began about 1900.

In the 1890s in Derry the Catholic clergy, largely in the form of Fr. Willie O’Doherty of Long Tower, strongly disapproved of Republicanism and even discouraged men from becoming involved in the GAA.


Fr. W.O’Doherty, credited with establishing the Columban festival in Derry as a counterbalance to Apprentice Boy celebrations in the city.

The later part of the 19th century is notable in Derry for the increasing confidence and momentum of the nationalist community and the reaction of the city’s unionist community to this. This competition climaxed in 1913 the nationalists secured the Westminster seat by 27 votes and in Ulster they won 17 seats as compared to 16 won by unionists.


Irish Volunteers in Celtic Park, 1913.

When the Volunteer Movement split in 1914 c.150 men stayed with the Irish Volunteers and c. 4,000 went with the National Volunteers, many of them going in to the British Army. After the 1916 Rising 9 Derry men, mostly from the Bogside, were interned and spent time in Frongoch.

Shortly after the Rising Loyld George first proposed the six county opt out and Derry nationalists reacted furiously, even splitting with the broad nationalist movement and forming the Anti Partition League under the direction of Bishop McHugh.

August 1917 saw the formation of the 1st Sinn Fein Club in Derry and from this point onwards Sinn Fein expanded, but did not come to dominate the nationalist community in the city.

The 1918 enfranchisement of women had a large impact in Derry and overall the Representation of the People’s Act raised the poll from 6,000 to 16,000. In December 1918 Eoin McNeill (SF) was elected as MP as a unity candidate.

August 1919 witnessed riots in the city when nationalists demanded the right to march on Derry’s Walls. As 1919 came towards an end the focus in the city turned towards the municipal elections in 1920.

In these elections held in January the nationalists secured 21 seats to the unionist 19 and for the first time since 1688 Derry received a nationalist Mayor, Alderman Hugh O’Doherty. The impact of this on Derry unionism was immense and serious violence occurred in the city in April, May and June 1920, with 40 people being killed and many others wounded.


Hugh C. O’Doherty, the first Nationalist Mayor of Derry.

This tended to take the form of initial clashes between nationalists and unionists and then the intervention of the military against the nationalists. The outcome of this violence, particularly the fiercest clashes in June, was to convince the IRA that in Derry City it was in no position to combat both the military and loyalists and IRA activity practically ended in the city.

In 1921 Derry nationalists found themselves opposing Derry’s inclusion in Northern Ireland. With the northern parliament assembling in June Derry’s nationalists turned south for support but the signing of the Anglo Irish Treaty in December was greeted with some dismay in the city.

Nationalist hopes in Derry now rested with Article 12 of the Treaty, the Boundary Commission, and their sense of alienation was reinforced when the NI parliament abolished PR in 1922. In 1923 local government elections were held and Derry Corporation reverted to unionist control. It was to be another 50 years before a nationalist again became Derry Mayor and during that time local government in the city increasingly became associated with discrimination and gerrymander.

In order to ensure continued unionist control of local government the NI parliament introduced its first gerrymander in 1936, ensuring in 1938 that a nationalist register of almost 10,000 elected 8 Cllrs and less than 8,000 unionists elected 12.


The Boundary Commission.

The Boundary Commission heard submissions in Derry in 1925 but the efforts of the city’s nationalists were to prove useless. WT Cosgrave signed the Tripartite Agreement on 3rd December 1925 and the last hope of Derry’s majority community to opt out of Northern Ireland were gone.

Economically partition coincided with a down turn in the fortunes of Derry. Watts Distillery closed in 1920, and was followed by the shipyard in 1924. By 1926 unemployment in the city was at 28% and over the next decade 3,000 men left the city and 1932 witnessed a march of Derry’s unemployed to the Guildhall.

For the majority of Derry’s citizens WW2 was to be a period of unaccustomed prosperity. The outbreak of war saw the re-opening of the shipyard in 1939 and increased employment opportunities in the town. The return of the Treaty ports in 1938 was also to mean that the city occupied the role of the most westerly port on the north Atlantic approaches to Britain. It was a position that the Allied Powers were quick to recognise and utilise.

On the 30th June 1941 362 American civilian technicians arrived in Derry to begin work on an American Base in the city. Then on the 5th February 1942 US Naval Operations Base, Londonderry, was officially commissioned and continued in operation until July 1944. A US Naval Communications Base remained until 1977.

The only German involvement in the city on the 15th April 1941 when a lone German bomber dropped 2 parachute mines over Derry. 1 landed on Messines Park, killing 15 people.

During this period Derry Jail was used to house Republican prisoners, who were far from delighted at being a guest of His Majesty. Their displeasure was highlighted on Christmas Day 1940 when a riot occurred in protest at the poor conditions in the Jail and again on the March 21st 1943 when 21 prisoners left the prison via a tunnel.


Derry escapees being arrested by the Irish Army in Donegal, 1943.

The following year the Education Act, ensuring free education for all, was to have an enormous impact 20 years later when an entire generation of young, university educated graduates found themselves confronting a system that would provide third level education whilst refusing the same graduates employment on the basis of their religion.

As the decade closed it appeared that partition was copper-fastened, with Southern Ireland declaring itself a Republic and the Ireland Act (1949) guaranteeing Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom.

Following the excitement of the war years, and the relative prosperity that the city enjoyed during this period the 1950s was to be a grim decade, marked by high levels of emigration, continued discrimination, occasional conflict and rare good news.

Census figures reveal that in the 1950s 12.6% of Derry’s population left the city.


Eamon deValera visits the Bogside, 1951.

1951 also witnessed the visit of Eamon DeValera, then out of Government in Dublin, to the Bogside to open a week of Gaelic games and cultural events.

The same year, and the following year, St Patrick’s Day parades were baton charged by the RUC in the city centre when the tricolour was raised.

Then in April 1951 a local republican, Manus Canning, is suspected to have been the man who erected a tricolour on Walker’s Pillar on Easter Saturday. On the 3rd June the IRA, which had c. 20 members in Derry city, raided the Ebrington Territorial Army Base inside the naval base in the Waterside, escaping with 20 rifles, 20 sten guns, 2 Bren guns, 6 machine guns and ammunition.

In 1953 Eddie McAteer was elected as the Nationalist MP for Foyle, a position he was to retain until his defeat by John Hume in 1969.

1956 The Border Campaign

The city of Derry was to be relatively unaffected by the IRA Border Campaign, which was launched on the 11th December 1956. In Derry City 5 IRA men blew up a BBC transmitter at Park Avenue in Rosemount.


Wreckage of Derry train station, 1957.

On the 2nd March 1957 the IRA stopped a goods train outside Strabane. It was intended to derail the train near Derry and then attack the breakdown crane sent to recover it. The plan fell through and the train careered into Derry station, wrecking itself on the buffers. These incidents appear to be the height of military activity in the city, but a number of local men were imprisoned or interned.

Whilst the 1960s dawned with the opening of Altnaglevin Hospital and Du Pont commencing operation in the city the portents for the ruling Unionist minority in the city for the future were not good:

Calls by the nationalist MP Eddie McAteer, supported by the local Corporation, for the establishment of a University in Derry were to be frustrated by the Lockwood Commission in 1964, leading to the establishment of a University Campaign. This campaign rallied support in Derry but was to prove unsuccessful in winning over the Stormont Government. When the university was located in Coleraine it left a sense of bitterness in Derry, together with a suspicion amongst Derry Nationalists that not all Derry Unionists had been sincere in seeking to bring the university to the city.

The 1961 census revealed that the birth rate in the South Ward, at 21.2 per 000 was almost double that of the Northern average, 40% of the population there were under 15 and that 80% of births in Derry were to Catholic mothers.

It was clear that the Unionist gerrymander would come under increasing pressure as the 1960s progressed. This growth also placed greater strain on the housing stock in Derry, and it was to be housing, more than any other issue, that fuelled the Civil Rights Movement in the city.

In September 1963 the Northern Ireland Housing Trust commenced the clearence of the Bogside and over the next decade the core of the Bogside was demolished and rebuilt. 1966 saw the completion of the Rossville Flats as part of this redevelopment and the process demonstrated, quite clearly, that provision would need to be made for the housing of several hundred Bogside families outside the South Ward. The Unionist Corporation responded by attempting to stall the building of new homes.

In 1967 a survey by the Derry Housing Association showed that 1,400 families remained on the waiting list, whilst in 1968 Eric Drayson, the executive sanitary officer for the city reported that over 1,000 houses were experiencing multiple occupancy.

In an attempt to address this the DHA successfully completed 27 homes at Farren Park, in the North Ward, as a pilot project in 1967. They immediately applied to build 500 homes ion the North Ward but this request was rejected, strangely with the support of 4 Nationalist Cllrs on the Corporation, who cited the areas zoning as an industrial site.

Regardless of the merits of this situation it contributed to the feeling within Catholic Derry that the single biggest obstacle to solving the chronic housing shortage was the Unionist Corporation.

This contributed to the radicalisation of the Bogside, and the redevelopment of the area, by providing a focus for complaints and protests in the form of the Northern Ireland Housing Trust and the Corporation helped the formation of a number of tenants organisations, with members of the DHAC  prominent.

The Bogside and Brandywell that exists today was the product of the redevelopment of the 1960s and early 1970. This redevelopment shaped the physical landscape of the area, and also dispersed the community that once lived across new estates. Many former residents of the area, whilst no longer residents themselves, retain a strong bond with the locality in which they were reared, and many of the streets that are no longer with us.


The Rossville Flats being constructed.

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